July 2023 | Japan Media Review

Barefoot Gen depicts the brutal reality of nuclear warfare, but authorities have always viewed it with suspicion

A northwest view of the Atomic Bomb Dome and Motoyasu River, Hiroshima - Wikipedia

Hiroshima was chosen as the site of this year's G7 leaders’ summit because it is home to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s constituency. To most people, Hiroshima stands for one thing: the first of only two cities to be attacked with a nuclear weapon. But while the world leaders who attended the summit visited the Peace Memorial Museum and pondered the loss of life on August 6, 1945, nuclear disarmament was not on the agenda, to the anger of anti-nuclear activists. Here was the perfect opportunity for the international community to discuss not only non-proliferation but the elimination of atomic weapons. As the representative of the U.S., which dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Joe Biden did not express any remorse. Activists were even more disappointed by Japan, which suffered directly in the atomic bombings and yet did not raise the subject at the G7. Hiroshima's tragic history was used only as a sightseeing gambit. 

The reason for the omission was obvious. Japan and the U.S. have strengthened their military partnership in recent years to counter China, specifically its threat to Taiwan, which China claims as an integral part of its territory. This partnership means that Japan exists, more than ever, under America's nuclear umbrella. Japan has never vocally opposed U.S. nuclear capabilities, which means its approach to the tragedy of Hiroshima has been to blame war in the abstract, rather than on any specific decision on the part of the U.S. at the end of World War II. This approach extends to Japan's own responsibility for the destruction suffered by the Japanese people during the war, not to mention the atrocities committed in other countries in Asia. 

As pointed out May 26 in an opinion piece by anti-nuclear activist Toshiharu Sasagawa in the Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese government has never even explained to its own people why Hiroshima was a target. Hiroshima was a major military center during World War II and a launching point for soldiers about to be sent into battle. But even the Hiroshima municipal government has edited its own history. Sasagawa protested to city authorities when he learned that the testimony of a Korean hibakusha (victim of the atomic bombing) had been removed from a video prepared for the annual peace memorial ceremony that was held last August. The purpose of the removal, he claimed, was to erase the Korean presence in Hiroshima during the war, which was considerable: 140,000 were living in the area at the time, many having been mobilized from the Korean peninsula – then a Japanese colony – for the war effort. About 50,000 were exposed to the bomb, of which 30,000 died immediately or soon after. Injured Koreans not only did not qualify for special compensation given to hibakusha by the government, they did not even count in the annals of that terrible day, because to mention them would necessitate explaining why there were so many, and Japan is loath to talk about its colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

But the matter goes deeper. According to an article that appeared on February 18 in the Tokyo Shimbun, Hiroshima's municipal board of education has decided to revise the materials it uses for its peace study program for third-year elementary school students starting this year. Previously, these materials included excerpts from the manga serial Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) by the late Keiji Nakazawa. Originally published from 1973 to 1987 in various periodicals, the series is based on Nakazawa's own experience of surviving the atomic bombing, which killed his father and three siblings. The comic is graphic about the death and destruction caused by the bomb, and some of the scenes depicted in the materials include the hero, Gen Nakaoka, who was six on the day of the attack, stealing carp from a pond to feed his starving mother, and watching as his father is burned to death after their house collapses in the bombing. 

The board of education started using these excerpts in 2013, but at a February meeting to revise teaching materials that included input from university instructors and public school principals, "some participants" pointed out that these excerpts "have little meaning for students today", and that the scene of Gen stealing carp "could be misunderstood". One board member told the Tokyo Shimbun that Hadashi no Gen has been read by millions of people worldwide, and that the board is not saying that the comic "is not important to Hiroshima", but that only using isolated scenes from the story requires that teachers explain the context more fully. That may be difficult, the board member said, given the amount of time allotted to the program in class. The excerpts will be replaced by interviews with families of hibakusha. 

Nakazawa's widow, Misayo, expressed shock at the removal, telling the Tokyo Shimbun that her husband was very happy when he learned just before he died in 2012 that Hiroshima would use his work as a teaching material, since one of the purposes of the comic was to convey to children the tragedy of the bombing and the pointlessness of war. Professor Tetsuhiko Nakajima of Nagoya University said that the board's reasoning made no sense. Children enjoy using comics as a learning tool. Expressing an event as monumental as the atomic bombing in manga form makes it easier for them to understand. Teachers can more easily construct lessons around the excerpts. If they deem some excerpts to be "too difficult", they can just choose different ones, since there are so many. 

The Tokyo Shimbun implied another reason for the removal by mentioning that in 2012 the board of education of Matsue in Shimane Prefecture asked that access to copies of Hadashi no Gen be "limited" in elementary and junior high school libraries. Later, the books were moved into storage due to "complaints" from unnamed people who said the violence depicted was too extreme and that the manga reflected badly on the Japanese military. A year later, the restrictions were lifted after other people complained. It is worth noting that more than 10 million volumes of Hadashi no Gen in book form have been printed. The manga has been adapted into five different movies, two of them animated, and even into a musical. It has been translated into 24 languages.

However, the manga's impact in Japan has been limited by circumstances. Since May the Asahi Shimbun has run a multi-part series about Hadashi no Gen. Nakazawa was in the first grade when the bomb dropped. In fact, he was at the school gate when it exploded and was saved by the schoolyard wall, which fell on top of him. When he emerged, he saw burning or obliterated human bodies all around him. He ran home and found his brother and sister incinerated and his dying father pinned beneath the wreckage of their burning house. His pregnant mother survived, but her daughter died four months after being born.

In his autobiography, Nakazawa said he spent years trying to forget the bombing and the horrifying sounds, images, and smells, but could not. Eventually, he moved to Tokyo to pursue his dream of becoming a manga artist, and had no intention of using the bombing as source material. He did well, creating comics "to entertain". He married. And then, when he was 27, his mother died and his anger about the bomb returned stronger than ever. He decided to write about it to "avenge my father, sisters, and brother". Revenge was the theme: a young man dying from radiation sickness attempts to kill an American soldier. Then he brought a different atomic-themed manga to the publication Weekly Shonen Jump that moved the editor-in-chief, Tadasu Nagano, to tears. He suggested Nakazawa rewrite it as his own story. "Future generations need to read this," Nagano told him. 

The comic appeared in June 1973 and, at first, wasn’t popular with some readers, who said it was too depressing. Some employees of the publisher felt the same way, saying their job was to entertain, but Nagano resisted. He himself had experienced the war firsthand and was disappointed that no one ever talked about it any more. He thought publishing Hadashi no Gen was an important task, even if not everyone liked it. However, when the oil crisis struck, the series was discontinued due to a paper shortage and then dropped completely. But it had attracted a fan base that included writers, editors, and other opinion leaders. Eventually, other publishers picked it up. In book form, the series eventually ran to 10 volumes.

Hadashi no Gen is dramatic, but it lacks one common component of manga that Nakazawa detested: konjo, the idea of giving one's all – even one's life – for an ideal, and in a proper manner. In his comic, Gen survives by his wits, which often means he resorts to improper, even illegal, acts. These depictions have often offended education authorities who believe they set a bad example for children, but Nakazawa believed children should understand the truth, because this is how so many people lived through the deprivations brought on by the war. He believed children should be frightened by his comic, because that meant they understood its significance. Another aspect of the comic that troubled some educators was Gen's father, who is characterized as being against the war effort, always railing against the military authorities and their demands. There is also the matter of a zainichi Korean character who is bullied due to her ethnicity and yet comes to the aid of her oppressors in the wake of the bombing. 

Over the years, Nakazawa was often asked to speak about his experiences, usually to students, and, like his editor Nagano, he became increasingly discouraged by how little people knew about the war, not to mention the atomic bombing. It simply wasn't mentioned. Even people in Hiroshima, despite the presence of the peace park and museum, didn't seem to know that much. Some still discriminated against hibakusha, having heard incorrectly that they could spread disease. When he gave speeches, his listeners invariably responded with shock, and many would leave in tears. How could they have not known about this before? That's why he was so grateful, just before he died, when he learned that Hiroshima schools would use his manga as a text. But now it seems the Hiroshima board of education has changed its mind. 


Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for the Number 1 Shimbun.